In my impressionable 20s, an acquaintance told me she went to India with her aunt. She said she went out of the hotel, looked at the street scene, vomited, went back into the hotel and didn't go back out until they left for the airport to go home.
This year, I came to the conclusion that there was no way I was finally going to get the Taj Mahal crossed off my bucket list without actually going to India. My niece, Natalie, a 20-year-old Orange County girl, was taking her junior year abroad in England; my sister prevailed upon me to be the aunt who would take her niece to India. Not wanting to be involved in a scene like the one reported to me, I did something I had never done in all my travels: I had a travel agent book everything, and top end.
Natalie flew to Cairo, Egypt, and went through a week there with flying colors. She loved everything. I began to relax. If she could get past the Cairo garbage dump on the way to the Rock Churches, and through the Camel Market, she was probably going to be able to go anywhere with aplomb.
We flew into Delhi on Emirates Air. Natalie noted with pleasure that it was the nicest economy class airline she ever had flown on. In the airport, a charming young man met us, helped us with our luggage and took us out to our nice, clean, white, air-conditioned SUV; there he introduced us to Kuldeep, our marvelous driver who guarded us, shepherded us, informed us and took us everywhere for the next eight days. Kuldeep could drive and explain the world to us while he was dodging camels, cows, dogs, donkeys, carts, cars and people.
We went straight to Agra to a nice hotel. Natalie looked down at the pool with pleasure and was gone until our dinner of excellent Indian food. The next morning, the guide escorted us around the Taj Mahal. We were accordingly impressed, gawked, took photographs like the tourists we were and listened to the well-known story of the love of a ruler for his wife who died giving birth to his 14th child.
Natalie was taken with the translucent, shimmering, carnelian flowers embedded in the tomb and vowed to find some carnelian jewelry. I, on the other hand, was taken with the story told in the Tower in the Agra Fort, across the way from the Taj.
When Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned there by his son, he was put into a tower where he could look out at the tomb of his beloved wife. As he went blind, he had a huge diamond embedded in the wall of the tower so his fading vision focused on the glimmer in the direction of his wife's resting place.
After we left the Taj, we went into the famous Golden Triangle, the Indian state of Rajasthan, for the balance of the trip. Our first stop was the Ranthambhore Tiger Sanctuary. We rumbled in our jeep through an Indiana Jones-like scene, with crumbling forts, vines, swinging monkeys and pheasant magpies, and, lo and behold, we saw both a tiger and a leopard on our first trip out. This was astonishing luck, and we knew it. We saw nothing the rest of the day, nor the next morning on our other trips into the park.
The next stop was Jaipur, the city of Maharaja Jai Singh II, a famous astronomer who built a remarkable observatory of stone and marble to prove to the Mughal emperor that Hindu astrology was based on precise scientific principles. The observatory felt like a giant children's amusement garden. We took an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort. We were surprised by the Hawa Mahal, the "palace of the winds," a five-story-high, ornate, pink sandstone structure that was only one room deep. It was designed so that the women of the harem could catch the breezes through the multiple pink sandstone "jail" screens, balconies and arches while they watched the street scene below without being seen.
Because of my interest in water structures, I had asked to go to Bundi, a town with the most famous of the medieval step wells, or baoris. The Rani Ji Ki Baori, named after the queen who built it, is an astonishingly intricate cistern. We walked down, down, down, marveling at the carvings. Sadly, the baori was empty after five years of bad monsoons.
The lake with the Sukh Niwas Palace out in the middle, the inspiration for Kipling's writing of Kim, also was empty. Kuldeep suggested we walk up to the Bundi Fort and its palaces. It was hot, and we weren't too enthusiastic, but a Kuldeep suggestion was a serious matter.
We walked up a vacant cobblestone road, past an entrance where two guards were playing cards, up and up and up into a warren: room after room after room, magnificent with peeling painted walls and mirrors. Natalie and I were the only two in the entire, massive stack of palaces except for a young German college couple. At the top, we were astonished to look down and realize that all of the roofs of the town, glowing in the sunset, were painted pale lavender.
Later, from the roof of our hotel, we saw an Indian wedding parade with the groom on an elephant; we saw a political parade with its clamorous music. Bundi was magic.
Lastly, we ventured on to famous Udiapur. The palaces were remarkable indeed. But even more pleasing was our own palace, the famous Taj Lake Palace Hotel. We felt like we were Maharanis. What a finale.
Natalie told her mother that the trip to India was the highlight of her junior year abroad. Am I a great aunt, or what? Christine Anderson lives in La Plata County when she's not teaching in Egypt.